Apple has been poaching engineering talent, securing IP, and purchasing other manufacturers over the last few years. It’s always been clear that Apple is aggressive, but the actions all seem to be pointing in a singular direction over the last couple years.
Firstly, Apple’s new iMac Pro that contains one of their ARM CPUs, and more are expected to come. The ARM CPU is suspected to provide some security services as well as replace some other discrete hardware controllers. Additionally, the chip is leveraged for always-on Siri, a service that would otherwise tie-up CPU time. While this use of the ARM CPU is somewhat reminiscent of past co-processors in the ’90s, it’s certainly a sign of what the future holds for Apple products. This integration of ARM into an x86 system shows that Apple is already serious about deploying their ARM CPUs in their computers, it’s no longer a matter of speculation. While this doesn’t exactly indicate a move to the ARM architecture, it shows that Apple feels the need to fill some voids with their own chips.
Secondly, Apple left tech enthusiasts skeptical when benchmarks started surfacing that indicated the iPhone 8 CPU was actually faster than a mobile (laptop) Core-i5 in GeekBench benchmarks. Considering the huge power disparity between the two, this was very difficult to believe. Sure enough, more benchmarks were posted online from different sources. Apple showed us that mobile phone CPUs are now going toe-to-toe with laptop CPUs (with some reservations). This might not come as much of a surprise after Microsoft and Qualcomm’s initiative to get Windows running on the Snapdragon, but many were still very conservative about believing that an ARM CPU was sufficient for an everyday laptop. If Apple’s iPhone CPU can compete with the mobile Core-i5, then a scaled up version for laptops (or desktops) could definitely surpass it. Knowing this, it’s hard to think of any reason why Apple would still choose to rely on Intel’s products.
Lastly, Apple has allegedly decided to delay the implementation of planned macOS features in order to work on security, reliability, and performance. In a market where features trump such virtues, it’s a very noble thing for Apple to do. They appear to be giving consumers the medicine they need rather than playing a sycophant and giving them what they want. There is, however, one very notable exception to this. Apple has decided, still, to move forward with their so-called project Marzipan (and we thought deserts were Google’s thing). Stealing a trick from Microsoft’s playbook, Apple’s project Marzipan will allow iOS applications to run on macOS. That’s nifty, but what does it have to do with macOS on ARM?
The fact that Apple is making a single exception to their feature freeze for the upcoming release of macOS says a lot. Clearly, Apple values this feature so much that they’ve made it a sole exception. You could go as far as to say that this looks like a priority for Apple. You might be asking why Apple would want iOS apps running on x86 when this article is about moving macOS to ARM? iOS apps on x86 and macOS on ARM are really just two sides of the same coin. (SPECULATION ALERT) Allowing developers to create applications that run on iOS and macOS on their respective hardware platforms will seed a developer ecosystem that is fundamentally an exercise in cross-platform compatibility. Apple will be able to identify any particular difficulties and address them ahead of time.
Apple clearly has the means to produce their own CPUs. Whether they’ll actually be able to compete with AMD and Intel is another matter altogether, but it appears as though Apple knows what they’re doing.
The CPU scene was pretty stale until AMD shook things up with Ryzen last year. Intel’s scramble with their 7th generation of Core CPUs was laughable, but the 8th generation shows promise (for the future, that is). That being said, Qualcomm was also flanking Intel on the data-center side with their ARM-based Centriq CPUs. If Apple can successfully migrate MacBooks and iMacs to their own ARM CPUs, Intel would lose another ~10% market-share. AMD might have struck first, but the blood is in the water and contenders are circling. Microsoft is already running many Azure services on ARM, we’re seeing more and more powerful (and cheap) SBCs coming out (check out the RK3399 based stuff and look forward to an article on one eventually), and the fastest growth in both performance and affordability is in the variety of ARM offerings. It looks like a no-brainer. ARM is on the rise, even in the most well-established brands, Apple notwithstanding.
Let us know what you think in the comments below. Would you like to see ARM take a substantial portion of the market? Do you think they can? Or is Intel a permanent fixture in computing?